The American Society for the Positive Care of Children estimates that child abuse reports involve 7.5 million children, and child abuse crosses all socioeconomic and educational levels, religions, ethnic and cultural groups. The National Children’s Alliance has reported that nearly 700,000 children are abused in the U.S annually. Childhelp.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of child abuse, found that a report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds.
These statistics are hard to stomach, and one common thread that they all share is the effect that this kind of abuse can have on children, more specifically their mental well-being, which can include mental health disorders, addictions down the road, depression, suicide attempts, and more.
‘EVERYONE IS AT RISK’
In the short term, abused children can often experience nightmares, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, behavioral problems and self-mutilation. In the long term, effects can include depression, suicidal thoughts or acts, eating disorders, and substance abuse.
“If unaddressed, these symptoms can progress to a diagnosable disorder, such as major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety or other conditions. Children who have been abused can have problems with trust in relationships, can experience worthlessness, and can have trouble regulating emotions,” says Dr. Takesha Cooper, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of California at Riverside.
She adds that raising children can be a wonderful and fulfilling journey, but it can also be challenging at times.
“Parents who are under stress with limited support systems are at risk of abusing their children,” Cooper says. “Other risk factors of abusive parents include untreated mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, and lack of parenting skills.”
Jane Timmons-Mitchell, a child clinical psychologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, says the most common abuse is the result of persistent neglect, which can be the result of poverty, lack of parenting skills or inattention.
“Next is physical abuse and then sexual abuse,” she says. “These characterizations apply when the age difference is four years or greater between the abuse victim and the perpetrator.”
“The question of parent characteristics that relate to abuse has been studied for many years,” Timmons-Mitchell adds. “The chilling answer is that everyone is at risk: people abuse children because they can. That said, some groups of parents present greater risk, including active substance abusers. The best way to prevent abuse is to connect parents with others who can support them and provide trusted advice if needed.”
HOW TO HELP
Any adults — non-abusing parents, family members, teachers, babysitters, mental health professionals — should intervene in any way to protect a child from abuse, says Mark Smaller, past president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, headquartered in New York City.
“Otherwise, they are contributors to the abuse,” he says.
“Professionals such as teachers or mental health professionals are legally obligated to intervene and report any kind of abuse. Just being the active witness and someone intervening can have instantly an important positive impact.”
Psychotherapy for the child, the adult child who has been abused, and the abusive parent, can hugely benefit from ongoing, usually longer-term treatment, Smaller adds.
“Most mental health professionals are educated regarding how to work with abused children or adults who have experienced abuse,” he says.
Children who have been abused need to feel safe and to hear that the abuse was not their fault, Cooper says. Adult figures can help these children by reiterating these ideas and seeking professional help for the child.
“There are good evidence-based therapies for children who have experienced abuse to help them process the abuse in a safe space and move forward with their lives,” she says.
At Your Service:
• National Children’s Advocacy Center - run by counties, advocacy centers specialize in receiving outcries of abuse and helping the child and family determine next steps.
• National Child Abuse Hotline: 800-422-4453.
• Local, licensed counselors who have clinical experience serving the population of abuse survivors.